Of Bears and Beers


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     Day 117.  I awoke about an hour before dawn as usual, and got up to stir the ashes in the fireplace. A couple of minutes and a couple of kindling sticks later the sound of cheery crackling warmth joined the whistle of wind from outside. I put the coffee pot on the fire and turned to look out the hole in the roof to check on the weather. For at least the hundredth time in the two weeks I had been making this old climbers shelter my home I wished I had the tools and skill to fix it. And, for at least the hundredth time, I again resigned myself to pretending that its just a not very weather-tight skylight.  My thoughts drifted back to evenings down at Gary's. All of us sittin' around with the barrel stove roaring, a Canucks game on the little TV in the corner, coolers full of Alpine on ice, and how the roof always leaked when it rained.  Yeah, if only I had some Alpine, this would be just like..... The sound of bubbling from the fireplace and a loud grumbling from my stomach brought my thoughts back to here and now. I poured myself a cup of morning glory and went outside to share it with the rising sun.  


     One of the things I love best about this old stone cabin is the gorgeous sunrises over the lake. Add to that the ice fishing shack out front, and there was a time I'd have paid money to live here. Great hiking, lots of game,(In just a couple weeks, I already had a big pile of frozen meat, half a dozen deer skins and nearly as many wolf hides curing, and I even had two gorgeous, soft, warm bear hides in front of the fireplace, nearly ready to be turned into a cozy sleeping bag!)   AWESOME fishing, and if only I had skates! Some natural phenomenon of wind and weather keeps this lake free of snow and as smooth as a Zamboni's ass day in and day out. This place really would be heaven on earth with a bit of company and a working generator.   I marveled at the beauty of the sunrise, the impossible combinations and melding of color as the glimmering rays of light slowly ascended the distant mountains and finally crept through the snow covered tree tops to dance on the impossibly sheer crystal surface of the frozen lake.  It almost made the cold worth it; almost made the incessant nightly howling of the wolves tolerable; almost made my bland breakfast of unseasoned venison and black coffee palatable. Almost. Was there a time when I'd have laughed at anyone who suggested a person could get sick of eating Venison?  Yes. I remember that time. I had salt and pepper in intricately adorned glass grinders then, and fresh onions and mushrooms and corn on the cob.  And I had friends. And TV, and hockey, and Alpine. 


     I finished my breakfast, "rinsed" out my coffee mug with some snow, and set out to check my rabbit snares while contemplating what I should do today. I'd been meaning to take a trip back down to the old abandoned bunker where I had a bunch of extra gear stored; I was down to my last tin of coffee and I only had 3 rounds left in my trusty ol' three aught three, but the weather was shaping up to be a rare gem this day and I remembered having seen a large freight container near the second falls a few days ago. I didn't have a hacksaw with me at the time, and had vowed a return trip to liberate it's contents. Today would be perfect for a hike upriver, if the weather keeps its promise, but for some reason going down to the cache kept tickling at my thoughts.  "No."  "The coffee will last 4 or 5 more days, if I don't brew it to strong, and I already have plenty of fish and venison cooked and frozen, I won't need to hunt again for at least a week, two if I'm lucky with my snares.  Besides, I've got my bow if any wolves try to get overly pesky, so it's not like having more ammo will be a life or death situation anytime soon."   (insert ominous background music here) 


     The snares were a dud. "It's almost creepy how the rabbits here learn so quickly. It seems like every time I catch one or two, the rest just desert the area like its radioactive."  "Oh well, it is what it is, no sense crying over empty snares."  I picked them up and dropped them off at the hut, grabbed my rifle and packed a light lunch, knowing I'd be back well before supper time. The hike up river was breath taking. I really think Mother Nature was rewarding for me for trusting in the weather. The sun was bright and strong, glistening off the snowy landscape, warming even the snow and ice just enough to be less slippery than normal. For once, there was no wind; as though even the mountain was holding its breath at its own splendor. Not one single wolf even came within earshot, and the deer and rabbits cavorted together in celebration of it. My morning journey through this winter wonderland was topped off by a short but considerably more strenuous than anticipated, rope assisted rock climb to the top of the first falls. "Whew... how in the world have I gotten so out of shape with as much hiking and wood chopping and carcass dragging as I do?" As I approached the container I sub consciously stretched out my left arm to check my watch and had even pulled back my sleeve before remembering I'd somehow lost it at some point and never managed to find it no matter how much I begged dev, uh, I mean, God, to give it back to me. So, I grumpily stared up at the sky, and ascertained I had approximately 8 hours of daylight remaining. 


     I sat down beside the container, munched on my trail lunch and gleefully entertained myself with thoughts of what might be inside. This was akin to winning the lotto, Christmas morning even!  By the time lunch was gone, I couldn't contain my curiosity any longer so I dug out my hack saw and set about popping open the locks on my fallen treasure chest. I don't mind telling ya, had it not already been such an incredible day, I'd have felt my trip wasted. My efforts in cracking the Christmas nut were rewarded with a backpack full of "springtime" clothing, all in such poor condition that no self respecting Hobo would have stuffed his shoes with it. Oh, and if memory serves, a half dozen banged up, rusty can openers. "oh well, providence comes in many forms, and I must be grateful for what I'm given, even if I have to use my imagination for it to be useful."  I stuffed my "treasure" into my pack, carefully wrapping up each can opener separately to avoid extra noise. I always fume about how damn noisy my backpack is, even empty! It's like the thing has a mind of its own, and fully believes itself to be a travelling gypsy tinker wagon! I swear it would go back to the store so fast it would make a sonic boom, ya know, if there was still a store for it to go back to. Or, I'd at least stop at a store and fill it with Alpine, and give it a reason to be noisy! Again, if there were still stores, ya know? 


     I slipped my pack straps up onto my shoulders, slung my rifle, and looked around. "Still a dandy day, I should explore a little on the way home, instead of going straight back down the river."  "No. The shadows are already starting to get long, and I have no supper with me, no bedroll, and no recourse if something goes wrong."  "Nothings gonna go wrong, I just wanna see some sights." "No."  "YES!" and off I went heading north along the rockface from the second falls to see what I could see.  It wasnt long before I came upon a ruined jet engine, almost buried by the drifted snow, "and presumably, the force of landing here without benefit of attachment to wings. heh heh"  While searching the area for anything that may be of use sans imagination I noticed what appeared to be a trail leading up the slope of a small peak. I studied the peak for a moment, and recognized its silhouette as one I often admire from the shores of the lake. "Well, this will be fun, I finally get to see whats actually up there, instead of just wondering." "This is dumb, no equipment, no supplies, no telling what could happen."  "Yup, fun INDEED!"  


     I hadn't even made it halfway up the steep trail when I slipped and twisted my wrist badly beneath me as I fell. "I told you so." "GRRRRR."  I picked myself up and brushed off the snow, (with my other hand) while debating whether or not to continue. I couldn't think of any good reason to give up over a bit of pain, so onwards and upwards I went, without even wasting any meds on it. "oooooo, TOUGH GUY!"  "yeah yeah"  I finished my trek uneventfully and upon reaching the mini-summit, I discovered a body frozen in the snow. Without any embellishment on HOW I found it, a chocolate bar now enters the story.  I carefully shuffled over to the edge of a sheer drop and sat down to eat his,  "MY" snack. I munched slowly, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth before crunching on the peanuts and stared down at the vista of "Zamboni's envy" below me. I could just make out the shape of my stone hut on the far side of the lake, sitting quiet and cold without me there to stoke the fire.  The sun was beginning to get low in the sky and the temperature had dropped a bit now as I popped the last bite of dark sweetness in my mouth.  I silently reflected on what may have brought its former owner here. What was the purpose of his visit? Was he here for recreation and got trapped? injured? Had he come here, like me, just to see what was up here, and had some calamity befall him? How many times I had had these same thoughts over the last four months. How many had I "borrowed" things from? How many had nothing when they died.  NOTHING.  "Four months? Has it really been FOUR months since I spoke to another living human being?" "Sometimes, I think the loneliness is the worst part of all this."  "Are you kidding? You used to pay big money to get away from people in places like this!"  "How many have I found?" "My God, it's alot." I had come so close, several times, finding people who weren't even frozen yet, dead only a couple hours maybe. Once even, I swear I heard him gasp his last breath just as my lantern light illuminated his boots. 

"Speaking of gasping, whats that noise?"  From far below me, down in a ravine, I could hear it drifting up on the rising wind. Snorting, grunting... "A bear!" 


     A hundred, no two hundred thoughts set my synapses on fire as my brain argued with itself about what to do next!  "Leave it alone, it isn't hurting me, it doesn't even know I'm here and I can easily get home without going anywhere near it...but it would if it could, and will, if it gets the chance later!"  "I've already got two hides curing, and tons of meat...but wouldn't it be just grand to have another to leave in front of the fireplace permanently!? and its not like the meat will go bad, frozen in a snowbank!" I only have three bullets left for Godsakes!.... but the first two went down easy, with one and two shots each, respectively!" "It's a waste of time, waste of life for no good reason, its starting to get dark and cold!... He'll be an easy kill, still plenty of daylight left and he wont go to waste!"  After what seemed like an hour, but was more likely about 30 seconds, I had convinced myself that a hunting trip was in order, so I set off at a brisk pace back down the trail, knowing full well that messing with bears for no good reason is the sport of fools. 


     I made my way to the hunk of steel that used to be an engine and pulled my rifle off my shoulder. I began to work the bolt to make certain a round was chambered when my wrist painfully reminded me that it had wanted some first aid for some time now. I quickly dug through my first aid kit for some painkillers and gulped them down to silence the complaint. "Not really what it needs, but it'll do 'til I think of something better" I picked the rifle back up, finished what I started, and struck out at as fast a pace as I could safely manage in the deep snow. After a short walk around the base of the peak I came upon a narrow ravine. "This must be the one I was overlooking" It wasn't long before a set of deep, broad, clawed tracks told me I was dead on.  I gripped the rifle tightly and followed the tracks to a cave that must have been his home, but they didnt actually go in, just kind of swerved towards it, like he had been checking on things, and then kept going. Before long, the ravine let out into a large clearing between the tall rockface and the river. I crouched low, staring in the direction the tracks went, scanning the clearing for any sign of movement. The whole place was full of boulders and snow drifts and other anamolies, most of which were easily capable of hiding a full grown bear. I quickly weighed my options, and decided that the best strategy would be to head down onto the river, where I could get a better view of the place from the open. I could hear his guttural growling and snuffling so I knew he was close by and the last thing I wanted was to meet him face to face as we both came over a snowdrift! I inched my way down onto the ice, and took cover in some tall cat-tails. The dry plants were rustling and swaying in the breeze, their shadows nearly 3 times actual height, reminding me that this hunt would have to end soon one way or the other. 


     I crouched there on the bank of the frozen river, peering out of my impromptu blind, my eyes straining to catch movement and suddenly I saw it, his nose poked out from behind a boulder barely 60 meters from me! I slowly and deliberately brought the rifle to my shoulder, lined up the sights, drew a breath, let out half, held it, tightened my finger on the trigger. He was completely out from behind the boulder now, his giant, hulking form completely filling my narrowed field of vision. I led him just a hair to account for his shambling pace and squeeeeeezed..... "What the HELL!???" somehow the wily critter had sensed his doom, or simply changed his mind about where he was going, I'll never know, but just as the rifle roared his death sentence, he turned an abrupt about face away from me, and my bullet smacked him squarely in the ass! In the blink of an eye he turned back and roared back at me at my pea shooter and charged! I furiously worked the bolt and slammed the buttstock back into my shoulder, drawing a frantic bead on his gaping maw! "My GOD! HOW DOES SOMETHING SO BIG MOVE SO FAST!?" No slow squeeze this time: he was less than ten meters away! I jerked the trigger and the rifle roared again, right in his face! I saw splinters of tooth mixed with blood spurt from his mouth a millionth of a second before the rifle was ripped from my hands and sent careening across the ice. 


     "oh shit, those claws are like firebrands being ground into my flesh! and his teeth feel like they're about 10 inches long when they sink through my clothes and tear at muscle! His breath stinks! PLEASE God, let it stop!" I can't really say I know how long it went on for, but it seemed like eternity before I finally lost consciousness. And, I can't really say how long I laid there on the ice before realizing I was still alive. 

"I'm dead. I didn't think being dead would feel so cold, or hurt so much" "It probably doesn't." Well, I'm pretty damn cold and I hurt an awful lot."  "Thats 'cause I'm not dead dumbass" "Yes I am." "Well then why am I bleeding?" "I'm bleeding?"  "Yeah, I should fix that." "Fix it? How?"  "With a bandage, knuckle head." "Quit calling me names...wheres a bandage?"  "In the med kit" "no there isn't, but theres one on the ice here by me" Well, it'll most likely do the trick, now get it and get on your feet"  "Wow!, look at all this blood!"  "USE THE BANDAGE!!" "ok ok, quit yelling at me. Holy crap, my clothes are freakin' shredded!" "No crap dummy, a bear mauled you." "QUIT CALLING ME NAMES!" "Now who's yelling?" "Shut UP!" "Dear God I hurt, is all this blood mine?" "No, some of it is the bears... need to go find his carcass before the wolves do." "WHAT!? are you serious? I need to get home and get a fire going and tend these wounds" "The blood trail goes in the direction of home, find the carcass." "No."  "YES! now get the rifle, and the knife and that other bandage and get moving!" 


     With about twice the effort it would have taken to lift a loaded log truck, I slowly, painfully put one foot in front of the other and limped off following the blood trail left by the seemingly severely wounded bear.  I knew I had to find him quickly, the gathering dusk would soon be only twilight, and then the temperature would start dropping with purpose, and I could not afford to be still out here then.  I followed the large and numerous blood spatters back down through the ravine, around the base of the peak, up the valley just in sight of the fallen engine, back to my junk chest from the sky, across the river, in a big loop and back across the river again, along the upper rockface and right back into the ravine... "How did I miss him?" "A better question is HOW is he still on his feet and moving? He's bleeding like a stuck pig!" "That is ONE tough bear."  Right back to the scene of my mauling the trail led, and then, thankfully, down the river towards home. "Well, thats convenient at least. He's gonna die close to home so I won't have to carry the meat far!" Smugness is not a virtue. Down the river I went as fast as my shredded boots would allow. "Why my boots? What possible motivation would a bear have to MAUL MY BOOTS!?" "Well, he was probably trying to prevent me from following him, heh heh heh!" "Shut UP Jerk!" "now who's calling names?"  I reached the lake and followed the trail along the eastern shoreline, around boulders, up over a little hill and then back towards the lake. 


     Just as I topped the hill for the second time, I hear him grumbling and muttering down on the ice. "HOLY CRAP! He's STILL ALIVE!" "Shoot him again, QUICK!"  "Are you kidding me? Its the last bullet!" "Yeah, so? He's gonna drop right there in his tracks, He's GOT to be almost dead!" "NO, he'll die any minute and I can harvest his greasy ass tomorrow. I'm sitting here til he moves away, and going to the hut to build a fire."   "SHOOT HIM! NOOW!!!"  "ok, ok, fer crying out loud!"  I crouched low and waited for him to clear a small rock, so I had a good clear shot. He stopped right there on the ice, and turned his head in my direction, his beady eyes glaring at me in the dark. I leveled the rifle, drawing a bead just behind his front shoulder, I had a full broadside view of him, standing perfectly still, waiting for me to put him out his misery. I could see the judgement being handed down on me in his eyes, his full weight suddenly dropped onto the karmic scales of nature. I squeezed the trigger a third time. Fire and Smoke and Thunder belched from the muzzle of the rifle, blood spurted from his chest, right where I had been aiming, and I lowered the rifle from my shoulder to stand up. 


     The demonic beast roared back and started up the hill towards me! "OH FU***** ME!!!!!" I screamed out loud as I threw the rifle to the ground and began backing away. I frantically clawed at my bow in a futile attempt to get it off my back and get an arrow nocked. Not enough time, not even HALF enough time. "HOW? In the name of God? Does something SO BIG, move so FAST!?"  I felt my body slam to the ground as his putrid breath enveloped my entire existence for a second time in less than 3 hours. Mercifully, I blacked out almost immediately this time, my last conscious thought.. "Cheez 'n' RICE that is ONE TOUGH BEAR!"  I say I blacked out, maybe my brain has simply erased the memory of it for its own sanity. I remember hearing my clothing being torn from my body, hearing his ragged snarls of hate as he mutilated me. But the rest is gone, vanished like humanity and civilization. Abandoned to the never ending winter like the hockey rinks, and TV's and coolers of Alpine. Forgotten, like warm summer nights and the sounds of voices. The sounds of pain and a heart struggling to pump blood that isnt there anymore. Pain? a Heartbeat? "Whose Heartbeat?" "Mine" 


     "No way, I'm dead."  "Again, I remind you that dead doesn't hurt this much."  "I can't see" "It's dark. and it's cold, and you need to get on your feet and get moving" "I'm not sure I still have feet" "GET UP IDIOT!!!!" "ok, I'm up, stop yelling. Hey, theres a leak." "A leak?" "yeah, see, somethings dripping on the ground."  "Get a bandage, QUICKLY!"  "What for?" "ITS YOU LEAKING!"   "PLEASE, please, stop yelling. It can't be me leaking, I'm dead. I HAVE to be dead, theres no blood left in me." "Trust me, you aren't dead, but you will be any second!" "Trust YOU? YOU"RE the one who got me in this mess to begin with!" "Just USE the bandage!... ok, good, now antiseptic, ok, now, walk." "No, it hurts."  "WALK!" " ok, just stop yelling at me!" "Where did the bear go?" "I dont know, and I don't care...I'm tired, and I'm cold, and I hurt, and I need to lay down."  "NO."   "Please?... HEY! theres the ice shack! Lets go in there, I'll lay down and rest and you fish!" "NO. keep walking, gotta make it to the hut."  "I need a drink, I'm thirsty. I'd give ANYTHING FOR AN ALPINE!"  "Theres a whole cooler of Alpine on ice in the hut, you can have as many as you want as soon as you get there!" "REALLY!? WOO HOOO!!!!" "Has this lake always been so wide? I don't remember it being such a long walk to the hut. And that hill leading up to the hut, it seems awfully long and steep" At this point, I was just beginning to believe that I may actually make it to the hut before hypothermia set in and froze solid the last few milliliters of blood remaining in my torn and broken body. I was only a few halting steps from the dock in front of my stone hut, a few dozen ragged breaths from the safety and warmth of my hearth, and a long blood curdling howl shattered the still night air. "A WOLF!!! RUN!!!!"  "I can't, I got nuthin' left"  The snarls and barks behind me were closing in rapidly! "The bow! get the bow, nock an arrow! it's the only chance!" "Its in the snow on the other side of the lake, covered in blood." "WHAT!!!??? YOU MORON!.... drop a chunk of meat, he's right behind you!" "no meat to drop, can I just lay down now?" At that very second, I knew judgement had been given. I had been tested and tried, and found wanting. It was over, Mother Nature had turned against me, given me one last perfect day of beauty and wonder to remember her by, and would now snuff me out for being a greedy fool. The wolf was not one step less than ten meters behind me, I could hear his stomach rumbling in anticipation of his coming meal, and there was no question in my mind that it was the last sound I would ever hear. 


     I wanted to lay down, I wanted to go peacefully into the long dark, just lay down and let the wolf have what was left of me. Somehow, for some unknown reason, my feet continued moving, and I DID hear one more sound, one more completely unexpected and completely unexplained sound. The sound of hooves. I looked up and charging down the hill from the hut, directly towards me, was a deer. I saw it, the wolf saw it, the deer apparently fleeing something much more fearsome than I or the wolf didnt see either of us, and ran straight past me and right into the waiting jaws of the wolf.  My heart pounded, my feet redoubled their heroic effort, and I reached the door of the hut at the same moment the wolf remembered its original mission. I slammed the door and stumbled towards the fireplace. "YES!!! WHERES THE BEER???"  "Its here, but first, you need a fire, you're gonna freeze to death any second." "Fire, warmth, check." "Good thing I left this lighter fluid sitting here on the hearth." "OK, now, water, and food."  "Yeah, beer on an empty stomach is not good."  "Right, now, sleep. You're to tired to enjoy a beer, sleep. It'll still be cold in the morning, and you can have all you want." "Good thinking, sleep. I need sleep." And I slept the sleep of the dead. The twice dead, the thrice dead and the four times dead. But I wasn't dead. How? Ask the bear. Ask the deer. Ask anyone but me, because I can't tell you other than by the simple facts of my tale.


     Day 117, with the sun gone for an hour or more, I got up from a puddle of my own blood, a smallish puddle, to be sure, because I hadn't much left in me to begin with. I bandaged myself, I poured antiseptic on myself, and looked around at the carnage. My bow was laying on the ground, my rifle not far from it, empty. A hacksaw, and a can opener, both covered with blood. I glanced around for the bear, but he had vanished into the night. I was shivering violently. I walked across Crystal Lake with ruined deerskin boots and pants, ruined wolfskin coat and rabbit fur mittens. Ruined toque, and scarf. I had 1% of my health remaining and 0% of my will to live. I had the teensiest, tiniest red slivers remaining of fatigue and warmth, virtually seconds away from dying from cold, and or exhaustion.  Literally, a dozen steps further from the hut, and I would not have made it.  I stumbled and weaved my way past the ice shack, barely able to see, barely able to hear, and the one sound I did hear struck terror into my soul. Perhaps it was this very terror that kept my feet moving when I cared not one pence whether they did or not. Perhaps it was something more. Perhaps it was Mother Nature herself, having decided her test had been unfair, or overly harsh and just getting me closer to that frightened stag. Perhaps it was all just a fools luck. Perhaps. 


    Now, in closing, I know all of you are wondering, "How big was the bear!?" Thats always the first question I get. I'll be honest, when I found him the next day, not 30 meters from his last act of defiance, he appeared quite small compared to my memory of the previous day, but, he had a full set of claws and teeth, and those're what he conducted business with, not his size.  He now adorns my fireplace, as was my original plan, but every time I look at his hide, I make sure to praise him for his incredible will to live; and the deer that saved my life?... went into a new pair of boots....  and although I still have deep and lasting scars, I gained a new respect for the karmic balance of the universe. And, I'm alive. I lived. 



Post Script: The wolf. By morning, he was gone, no trace of his ever being there, except the dead deer AND, before he left, while I was sleeping.... the son of a bitch broke into the hut and STOLE THE WHOLE DAMN COOLER OF BEER!!!!!!!!


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